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But some of these larger and longer-term projects are under fire, as can be seen in the congressional investigation of the DOE’s loan to Solyndra. “No one can deny that the reaction to Solyndra has had a damping effect on government finance programs for companies,” Chu said. But he also said that failure was expected. Congress knew there would be failures when it authorized the loan program; that’s why it appropriated $10 billion to cover losses. “It’s extremely unfortunate what happened with Solyndra—a half a billion dollar loss,” he said. “But I would be personally very surprised if we were to lose a third of that appropriated money.”

Gates expects the failure rate for energy innovation funding more broadly will be “well over 90 percent.” And he said there’s “no clear mapping between the amount you spend on R&D and the amount you get out”—it’s possible that the innovations will come from companies that are already well funded now. “But it’s more likely that the underfunding is delaying the rate of progress,” he said. “This is a very complex set of technologies, and so we need literally thousands of companies trying these things to increase the odds that we will have the 10 or 20 approaches that will get us the magic solution.”

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Credit: DOE/Quentin Kruger

Tagged: Energy, DOE, ARPA-E, Solyndra, energy funding

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